The $867 billion 2018 Farm Bill the House and Senate passed this week is a hot mess. The Washington Post editorial board described it as “a bad outcome—that could have been worse.” And they’re right. Unfortunately, we’re all going to be affected by it.
Congress passes a farm bill around every five years. It’s an encyclopedic set of rules that doles out nearly a trillion dollars every 10 years for farm subsidies and crop insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and on-farm conservation programs.
To be fair, the farm bill is a mirror of our political process. As such, it is a lopsided mix of some good policy and a lot of bad. I’ll get into the good (and mixed) news in more detail below, but for now let’s just say that progressives can be happy that programs to combat hunger, expand local and organic food production, train beginning farmers, and protect the land were all successfully championed this time around.
Still, the revised farm bill will ensure that citizens continue to pay for their food at least three times: 1) at the checkout stand; 2) in environmental cleanup and medical costs related to the consequences of industrial agriculture; and 3) as taxpayers who fund subsidies to a small group of commodity farmers deemed too big to fail.
Granted, many of those farmers are caught in a vicious cycle. Most live in areas where the only market and infrastructure support commodity crops, and yet those crops don’t support a resilient farm system. One-half of agricultural counties in the United States were designated as disaster areas from 2012 to 2016. Current subsidies are supposed to provide a safety net to even out the financial ups and downs of crop production and help farmers stay afloat in a competitive global economy.
Instead, over the last half century they’ve created an expensive and polluting engine of overproduction, which drives down prices, saturates markets, and shifts the burden of recouping costs to taxpayers who subsidize farmers’ insurance policies and other relief.
The 2018 Farm Bill will strengthen crop insurance subsidies that guarantee farm income even across swaths of the U.S. where soybean, corn and wheat growers will benefit from more generous terms on government loans. Small dairy farmers, who are regularly swamped by a flood of cheap milk from mega-dairies, will also gain protection.
Perhaps the biggest boon for commodity producers is the opening of eligibility loopholes. By blurring the definitions of what constitutes a “family farm,” the new bill will allow these farms to balloon in size and exponentially dip into the public trough. Current household limits for the two largest subsidy programs are set at $125,000 per year per operator and $250,000 for a married couple. (Household operations with an adjusted gross income under $900,000, and $1,800,000 for couples, are eligible.)
The revised law will now permit children and their spouses to also be seen as “actively engaged” in farming and therefore eligible for subsidies. It doesn’t end there. Nephews, nieces, cousins, and other extended family members can be daisy-chained to receive benefits as long as they can demonstrate participation in farm management even if they don’t set foot on the farm. This was justified in the name of supporting a new generation of family farmers. It seems more designed to help the big operations get bigger.